A shepherd's dog (Brizo) - Marie Rosalie (Rosa) Bonheur - Framed Picture 16" x 12"
Rosa Bonheur, born Marie-Rosalie Bonheur, was a French artist, an animaliere and sculptor, known for her artistic realism.
Her most well-known paintings are Ploughing in the Nivernais, and The Horse Fair. Bonheur was widely considered to be the most famous female painter during the nineteenth century.
Her father was Oscar-Raymond Bonheur, a landscape and portrait painter who encouraged his daughter's artistic talents. The Bonheur family adhered to Saint-Simonianism, a Christian-socialist sect that promoted the education of women alongside men. Bonheur's siblings included the animal painters Auguste Bonheur and Juliette Bonheur and the animal sculptor Isidore Jules Bonheur.
She had been an unruly child and had a difficult time learning to read, though even before she could talk she would sketch for hours at a time with pencil and paper. Her mother taught her to read and write by asking her to choose and draw a different animal for each letter of the alphabet. The artist credits her love of drawing animals to these reading lessons with her mother.
At school she was often disruptive, and she was expelled from numerous schools. Her father undertook to train her as a painter. Her father allowed her to pursue her interest in painting animals by bringing live animals to the family's studio for studying.
At fourteen, she began to copy paintings at the Louvre. Among her favorite painters were Nicholas Poussin and Peter Paul Rubens, but she also copied the paintings of Paulus Potter, Frans Pourbus the Younger, Louis Léopold Robert, Salvatore Rosa and Karel Dujardin.
A French government commission led to Bonheur's first great success, Ploughing in the Nivernais, exhibited in 1849. Her most famous work, the monumental The Horse Fair, measured eight feet high by sixteen feet wide, and was completed in 1855.
Though she was more popular in England than in her native France, she was decorated with the French Legion of Honour by the Empress Eugenie in 1865, and was promoted to Officer of the order in 1894. She was the first female artist to be given this award.
The art dealer Ernest Gambart represented her; he brought Bonheur to the United Kingdom in 1855, and he purchased the reproduction rights to her work.
In 1859 her success enabled her to move to the Chateau de By near Fontainebleau, not far from Paris, where she lived for the rest of her life. She did considerable rebuilding, and had pens for her animal models.
Women were often only reluctantly educated as artists in Bonheur's day, and by becoming such a successful artist she helped to open doors to women artists that followed her.
Bonheur can be viewed as a "New Woman" of the 19th century; she was known for wearing men's clothing, but she attributed her choice of trousers to their practicality for working with animals. In her romantic life, she was fairly openly a lesbian; she lived with her first partner, Nathalie Micas, for over 40 years until Micas' death, and later began a relationship with the American painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke. At a time when lesbian sex – particularly tribadism – was regarded as animalistic and deranged by most French officials, Bonheur's outspokenness about her personal life was groundbreaking.
In a world where gender expression was literally policed, Rosa Bonheur broke boundaries by deciding to wear pants, shirts and ties. She did not do this because she wanted to be a man, though she occasionally referred to herself as a grandson or brother when talking about her family; rather, Bonheur identified with the power and freedom reserved for men.